Burnt Orange Glasses: Happy Father's Day

Columnist Jeff Connor takes a time out from his typical rant to tell of the man who made him who he is and to wish you and yours a very happy Father's Day.

As I write this rant, my father is in a hospital room in Plano, Texas. Last Friday, he had yet another surgery, this one to do some maintenance work on his artificial hip which had popped out of joint numerous times over the past few years. The doctor in Midland who originally replaced Dad's hip tried tweaking it on several occasions, all to no effect. So they called in the big guns and sent him to some super-specialist in the Metroplex. Dad said the doctor came by after the surgery, but was not exactly Chatty Kathy. "What did he say?" I asked.

"‘It won't come out again,'" was his terse reply.

When I say Dad had yet another surgery, I am not exaggerating for effect. My father graduated from Plainview High School (where he was teammates and best friends with Longhorn tight end and Red River Shootout legend Bob Bryant (1956-58)) and came of age athletically in the early 1950's. The Korean War was recently fought to a standstill at the 38th parallel, and a 5'10", 165-pound, 18-year-old lineman drove to Abilene, Texas to try and find a spot on the Abilene Christian College Wildcat football team. Daddy competed against 24- and 25-year-old tough, battle-hardened war veterans, coming home to go to school on the G.I. Bill. He not only made the team, but also lettered for four years. Daddy ran track under the legendary Hall of Fame coach Oliver Jackson and was teammates with three time Olympic gold medal winner Bobby Morrow. Dad has the distinction of being the last person in the history of A.C.C. to pole vault with a steel pole (fiberglass soon followed).

But there is a price to be paid for everything, and my father's body has born the brunt of his time in the trenches. Both knees replaced. An artificial hip. Shoulder surgery. Surgery on his nasal sinuses. Arthritis. One leg shorter than the other. I cannot count the exact number of surgeries Dad has endured, but I suspect he is in the 17-20 range. He has so many replaced parts and is so bionic, Dad keeps a laminated card in his wallet showing all the metal in his body in case he needs to pass through a metal detector somewhere.

Daddy really started having problems with his hip last fall, when he and Mom were coming back from their 50th wedding anniversary cruise in Alaska. Now he's in the hospital yet again, this time in Plano doing physical therapy until Monday, when I will fly to Dallas and drive he and Mom home.

All of which makes my father's sporting legacy to me all the more poignant. The list of places, games, events and meets Dad has attended is on of the odd, gee-whiz aspects of his life. In junior and high school, Dad's coach and mentor was a fellow named Paul Petty. Coach Petty took my father and some of his buddies all over the country in a yellow Studebaker automobile. For instance, Dad was in the Cotton Bowl in 1954, sitting in the end zone with a perfect view of the sideline when Alabama fullback Tommy Lewis came off the bench to tackle Rice running back Dicky Maegle. Coach Petty took his charges to St. Louis, Missouri when there was an American League franchise in that town (the Browns). Dad got to meet a young Mickey Mantle, watch the Yankees play and later saw Satchel Paige pitch at bat in a Negro League game.

Without meaning to sound like a verse from "I've been everywhere, man" I can give you a partial list of my father's sporting legacy: Daddy played for the Plainview Bulldogs in the state basketball tournament and pole vaulted for P.H.S. at the high school state meet. As a coach, he sent runners and throwers to the state meet every single year he was head track coach at Andrews High School. As a spectator, Dad attended two Olympic games (Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996), the Penn relays, Texas Relays, numerous Texas high school state track meets (held for decades inside D.K.R. Memorial), Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon in 1976 and 1980, Abilene Christian's NAIA national championship football game in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1972 behind the spectacular running of Wilbert Montgomery, an NBA game where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was ejected after sailing the ball at a referee's head, the Baltimore Colts-Dallas Cowboys game at the Cotton Bowl in 1969 where I met Johnny Unitas coming off the team bus and the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

And that fails to include all the sports-related things we did together, which are too numerous to list individually and would be too tedious to list exhaustively in Inside Texas. For instance, Dad and I once drove to Denver City to attend the school district's all-sports banquet so we could meet and get the autograph of Olympian, Gold medalist, Nazi frustrater and great American Jesse Owens. There are stories about the Odessa "Mojo" Permain Panthers during their heyday, listening to Kern Tips call Doak Walker's name repeatedly in S.M.U. games on the radio in the Mobil Southwest Conference Game of the Week and growing up in Hollis, Oklahoma with Coach Darrell Royal's family.

So, on this Father's Day, I have no witty insights, no insightful witticisms, no pop culture references, no smart alec takes on Longhorn athletics and no pithy comebacks. I have simply my father's precious legacy: that it is insulting, blind and shortsighted to claim athletics is merely entertainment, that it is instead an essential part of life, that competition makes us better people, that we reveal truths about our character during physical contests, that the best of us can summon courage, determination and grit beyond our physical limitations and perform above our abilities, that involvement with the right coach can save a young man's life and shape his identity for a lifetime and that sacrifice for the benefit of one's teammates is not only a good thing, but is a necessary thing and, in the end, an American trait.

So it is with a full heart I wish all you Longhorn fathers a happy Father's Day. My sincere wish for you is not that your kid becomes the next Colt McCoy or Brian Orakpo, but that you and your children use athletics as a bridge to connect to each other in a deeper, more meaningful fashion. Quite frankly, there are many problems in the world that will never be solved with violence or diplomacy, but would vanish in an afternoon over a couple of dogs and a bag of peanuts at the ball park.

Hook ‘em.

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